Clinton 'amused' by Chavez handshake controversy
* Clinton defends Obama encounter
* Republicans criticize greeting
* Clinton says does not mean U.S. backs Chavez policies
By Sue Pleming
WASHINGTON, April 22 (Reuters) - Republican lawmakers piled scorn on U.S. President Barack Obama on Wednesday for shaking Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez's hand last weekend, an encounter Secretary of State Hillary Clinton dismissed as "amusing."
Republicans on the House of Representatives foreign affairs committee condemned the televised greeting between Obama and Chavez, whom Representative Mike Pence labeled a "virulent, anti-American, socialist dictator."
"I found it somewhat amusing, to be honest," Clinton, who was with Obama at the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad when he greeted Chavez, told the committee. "President Obama was right in saying 'You know, why should we be afraid of shaking somebody's hand?'"
Pence retorted: "Let me say, with the deepest respect, Madam Secretary, I am not amused."
"He (Chavez) has oppressed the media. He has bullied economic interests in the country. He has blacklisted political opponents from state agencies," Pence said.
Chavez had a tumultuous relationship with former U.S. President George W. Bush, a Republican he called the devil. But at his first meeting with Obama, Chavez gave the new U.S. president a book and said he wanted to be "your friend."
Democratic Representative Gerald Connolly came to Obama's defense.
"The idea that some might criticize the president for shaking a hand ... is truly clutching at straws to try to find something, apparently, to be critical of and perhaps to distract our attention from the damage done in the last eight years," Connolly said.
SUPPORT FOR OBAMA
Pence also criticized Clinton for changing her tune from her presidential campaign when she said she would never be used for propaganda purposes by leaders such as Chavez.
Clinton conceded that Obama, who beat her in the Democratic primary election, had put forward a different approach than hers during the campaign but said she now backed him.
"My bottom line is that I am here to serve my country, which I have loved ever since I was a little girl," she said. "And I'm going to support my president."
Clinton received more questions about the handshake at the hearing than almost any other topic.
Chavez is "very adept at knowing where the cameras are," she said, laughing. But Clinton said the greeting did not equal support for the Venezuelan leader's policies.
"It doesn't mean that we're going to give up our principles," she said. "But you know, let's try to see whether there's any opportunity to move President Chavez away from the influences that others were speaking about."
Chavez also approached Clinton at the summit to discuss sending back ambassadors to each other's capitals in a move to restore normal ties between the two countries.
The State Department called it a "positive development" and said the United States shared the goal of returning envoys.
The U.S. envoy to Caracas was expelled last September and Washington responded by kicking out Venezuela's ambassador in a dispute over U.S. activities in Bolivia. (Editing by John O'Callaghan)
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